Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Big Mom Handbag

When I was eleven years old, I decided I was going to start a babysitting business. I liked looking after small children and I was good at it. I checked a book out of the library about babysitting. The book suggested things you might want to take with you on a babysitting job to entertain and care for the children. As if on a scavenger hunt, I enthusiastically rounded up as many of these items as possible. I retrieved my suitcase from underneath my bed and filled it with my babysitting tools. When I showed my parents the contents of my suitcase, my father remarked that I would scare the children half to death upon my arrival since they would think I intended to move in with them. My mother promptly chewed him out for being critical and told me I was very clever and would be a highly prepared babysitter. In retrospect, dad was right. Unfortunately, my suitcase full of every conceivable item needed to care for children was a mere hint of what was yet to come. In my heyday, I was Mary Poppins on steroids.

After my children were born, I became the mom with the gigantic handbag. I carried so much stuff around with me in such an enormous bag that, as teenagers, my children threatened to tell police officers, “Do you see that woman over there with the railroad car over her arm? She thinks she’s my mother and she’s stalking me.” Of course when they needed a cracker, a towel, antibiotic ointment, a coloring book, a cat, a flashlight, or a camping cot, they suddenly belonged to me again and had no qualms about rummaging in my handbag. I once overheard my adult daughter boasting to a friend that if she needed to eat a yogurt in the car as a child, she only had to ask me for a spoon and I produced not just any spoon but a metal spoon. I still carry a metal spoon with me. You never know when you might need to dig a tunnel to escape a dungeon, and a plastic spoon would not suffice in such a situation.

A good mom is always prepared. I could produce nearly anything needed in any situation from my mom-handbag and my children knew it. When they played team sports and someone got injured, my children brought them to me instead of the coach because I had more emergency first-aid supplies in my handbag than the coach had in his official kit. Our family of five could survive for a week in the event of a natural disaster on the food I carried in my mom-handbag. (Water bottles, however, were stashed in a separate container.)

The deep-seated reasons for my mom-handbag are certainly connected to a touch of a refugee mentality that has clung to me from previous generations in my family when my ancestors fled Eastern Europe with nothing but the Sabbath candlesticks and a wool blanket. I feel insecure traveling without a heap of food and all the essentials to begin life over again in a foreign land if necessary. In fact, I carry all the essentials to begin a foreign land. Back in the day, when I traveled with three young children, I carried a large duffel bag onto the airplane. My duffel bag contained food, drinks, clothing, games, books, paper, arts-and-crafts activities, first-aid supplies, tools, eating utensils, towels, cloth diapers (for about ten years when I had babies and toddlers), plastic bags, etc. These days half of my airplane carry-on bag would have been confiscated by TSA and I would have been arrested for contemplating an invasion. Whenever I saw a mom board an airplane with small children and nothing but a tiny purse over her arm, I was astonished. Sure enough, those children inevitably cried, whined, and made a general nuisance of themselves for the entire flight. My children never ran out of things to do and eat and were consequently well-behaved. Other passengers frequently took a moment to tell me how impressed they were by the good behavior of my small children on airplane flights. Well duh. Their mom had a museum, a circus, a swimming pool, Toys R Us, a garden, Cirque de Soleil, and a restaurant in her duffel bag.

These days, now that my children are grown and have left home, I still carry a million things around with me in my handbag. It’s a habit I will never break. I need those pens and mini-notebooks in case I am suddenly seized with the desire to write the Great American Novel while waiting at a traffic light. I need that extra pair of shoes in case the ones I’m wearing fall apart. Digestive enzymes. Gloves, socks, and a spare bra. Tissues (god forbid that anyone should find themselves in a public restroom that has run out of toilet paper). Comb. Snacks. Clothespins. Tea bags. Phone charger. Swiss Army Knife (the most awesome device since it has so many tools all-in-one). Needle and thread. Collapsible clothes hamper. Fan. And a book of course. There always has to be a book in case the car breaks down or the line at the Post Office is out the door. I would not survive if left with nothing whatsoever to do for more than five minutes. (My daughter insists I need a smart phone, but I refuse to get one. Maybe if they start making them with a built-in socket wrench set then I’ll consider it.)

When our family gets together for events, such as weddings or Bar-Mitzvahs, and we all go out to eat, my adult children and my husband hold their hands out to me without a word when the meal arrives and I dole out digestive enzymes (we are all lactose-intolerant), which I have in the depths of my mom-handbag. If a stranger at the table next to us cuts his finger, one of my children is likely to lean over and say, “My mom has a bandaid. I’ll get it for you. Hang on.” If a fire were to break out, I have no doubt that my children would turn to me calmly and ask me to pass them the fire extinguisher, which they would assume I have in my handbag. Spare tire. Oxygen tank. Flame-thrower. Tent. Inflatable life raft. Rabbit. Sure. I must have one in there somewhere. 

This is why it came as no surprise to my husband last week when we were discussing what to do about the toilet in our master bathroom, which kept running, and he said he just needed to pop out to the hardware store to get a new flapper valve to fix it and I replied, “Actually I happen to have a spare flapper valve here in my handbag.” True. I am resourceful. I am a problem-solver. I am:  a MOM.

I have to get some of this for my handbag. 
No idea what to use it for but it's bound to come in handy. 
Maybe useful when gluing rabbits together?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

On Beyond Poetry

I have a confession:  I don’t read poetry anymore. It’s embarrassing given the fact that I have a master’s degree in English and it’s astonishing considering the fact that I wrote nothing but poetry for more than a dozen years in my youth. I didn’t purposely give up on poetry. I did not attend a 12-Step Poetry Recovery Program. The words in poems are footsteps carefully placed and each one requires attentive care and pondering. You can’t skip over words in poems; and I don’t have the patience to read every word like I used to. Though I can’t remember specifically, I think I crossed over from having an obsession with poetry to no longer writing the stuff when I became a mom. Once the children arrived, I found that I had stories to tell that could not fit into a few carefully crafted lines. So I guess you could say that I went beyond poetry when life got sloppy.

Consider the haiku, a Japanese form of poetry that I do still love, and read on occasion, mainly because it’s brief. A traditional haiku must be seventeen syllables. I mention this because I read a haiku recently that summed up my relationship (as a writer of epic fiction) with poetry. It went like this:  “Take me down to Haiku-City where the grass is green and dammit.” Ran out of syllables, couldn’t finish the thought. There you go. I need to spread out. I need a lot of space to tell a story. I can’t do it in a poem anymore. I have tried writing flash fiction and it’s painful. This is why you won’t find me on Twitter. I can’t possibly say anything in 140 characters. Unless of course by characters we mean people. I could do a lot with 140 people-characters in a marathon novel. I could, if hard pressed, crystalize a thought. But why would I want to? I am fascinated by the context.

I just looked for my old poems so I could share one, and I can’t seem to find the box in which they’re stored. (None of them are on my computer, of course.) That’s just as well because, if memory serves, a disproportionate amount of my college poetry revolved around sex. I hope my children fail to locate that box when I am dead as it would embarrass the socks off them. Super-duper ewww. In retrospect, it was excellent discipline for me as a young writer to attempt so many poetic descriptions of sex since it’s one of the hardest things to write well. I have labored over sex scenes in my novels. They should be erotic, and not pornographic. They should be poetic, touching, emotional, and not corny, silly, clich├ęd. One of the highest compliments I have received was when a woman told me that Memories from Cherry Harvest had great sex in it. Sex scenes should arouse and move the reader, not make the reader wince. You don’t want blather like “she felt his member throb against her thigh like a swollen banana preparing to fly on wings of longing” or “he cupped the rounded spheres of her rear-end lasciviously yet as tenderly as the first peaches of summer.” See what I’m saying? Fifty shades of pathetic descriptions of sex. Super-duper eww. In all seriousness, writers have been trying to describe the mystery of the sexual experience for centuries. It’s one of those things that tries to escape the confines of words.

Life itself tries to escape the confines of words. For this very reason, I never grow tired of the thrill of capturing the living moment with my words or reading someone else’s brilliantly constructed insight or portrayal. Occasionally I stumble across a poem that speaks to me, that delights me with its perfection. I remember many poems from back in the day that held meaning for me (not that I memorized them word for word). Here is one of my favorites by William Carlos Williams that popped into my head when I was under my plum tree the other day.

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

That’s the kind of poem I can still handle. I don’t have the patience anymore for poems that require deciphering. (I once did. Can you believe I wrote my master’s dissertation on Wallace Stevens? Go figure.) I enjoy simple poems that paint a moment and go piercingly and swiftly to the heart of the matter; and I do love a good, clean image in a poem. My taste in prose, on the contrary, runs toward the complicated. I adore the many-layered grand novel, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. When I finished that book I turned to the first page and started it all over again. Give me a long and complex novel with so many characters that I can’t keep them straight or remember their names. I want to dwell in a book. I want the author to create another world so that when I turn the pages I travel somewhere else, somewhere outside my existence. I want to enter a parallel universe that informs my life in this one. That’s probably why I like sci-fi so much.

At my book group this month, we discussed reading a classic novel together. When one of the people in the group suggested we read a nineteenth century Russian novel, I lit up like a newly minted galaxy. I think I frightened the group a tad with my roaring enthusiasm when I shared that I had read War and Peace three times. (Seriously, who reads War and Peace once, let alone three times?) The person who made the suggestion hastened to say that she thought perhaps a Dostoyevsky novella or a Tolstoy short story would do nicely. My hopes were dashed.

When I hear other people talk about poetry these days, I feel a twinge of regret. I sort of wish I enjoyed reading it. I will never write it again. Come to think of it, my passion for writing fiction has diminished in recent years as I have increasingly enjoyed writing the personal essay. Or, to be more precise, the blog. I like writing this right here; this ramble down the corridors of cyberspace; this throwing words at the wall and hoping they stick to something. Or someone. I hope that occasionally they stick to you, dear reader. If I ever become a famous blogger, it would be fun to host a writing contest for the most wincingly worst descriptions of sex. Not pornographic, just hilarious-awful. Are you with me on this?

Plums. Yum.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Letter That Saved a Life

Today I was reminded of a letter I wrote over 20 years ago that saved a woman’s life. I have not thought about that letter in quite some time. I have always loved and honored the power of words, mightier than the sword, transcending death. The story of that letter is a narrative unto itself that is worth the telling.

I have a friend I will call Kate (not her real name). Kate grew up in a dysfunctional family and she struggled with the psychological aftershocks of childhood trauma. She was prone to depression and when she sought professional help she was medicated. There is a bottomless and complex conversation that could take place around that scenario and the medical profession’s traditional approach to mental health. I am not going to have that conversation right now. Right now I am telling a story about one woman and a letter I wrote. So Kate was medicated, and even so she continued to struggle with depression. The medication distorted her thoughts and feelings; it distorted her judgement. Kate was also a single mom with a small child, who was the love of her life.

Let me say a little more about Kate here. She is a gentle, kind, generous, and humble person. She has been known to step far out of her comfort zone to help others in need, such as inviting homeless individuals to stay at her apartment and helping people who are at a low point in their lives to connect to needed assistance and resources. She delights in making the world a more beautiful place, using her creativity to elevate the everyday miracle to a higher level of notice. Considering what she suffered as a child, she is an astonishingly forgiving person; and a loving and creative force in the world. The next part of her story is, therefore, difficult to assimilate.

One night, Kate gave her beloved child some medicine so the child would sleep. She gave the child too much medicine. I believe Kate’s account of what happened that night because only Kate knows what she thought and what she did, and she is an honest person, and she loves her child, and it is not my place to speculate or judge. After she gave the child too much medicine, she took the child to the emergency room, where the doctors saved the child’s life. Kate was arrested for attempted murder. The child went to foster care. Kate did not lay eyes on that child again for more than ten years after this incident. Her pain and despair over her separation from the child during that time was horribly difficult for those who loved her to witness.

During Kate’s murder trial, her attorney contacted me. She explained to me that there was a strong possibility that Kate would be convicted, and a conviction would carry a sentence of 25-years-to-life. People convicted of crimes against children often do not fare well in prison. They tend to meet with an early demise. The attorney made it clear to me that she firmly believed, knowing all the facts in the case, that Kate had not attempted to murder her child. She was bound and determined to have Kate acquitted. She contacted me to ask me if I would write a character reference letter that she could present to the judge. She requested such letters from a number of Kate’s longtime friends. I don’t know how many of us wrote them, or who wrote them. I do know that I am the only trained, professional writer who wrote one. In my letter, addressed directly to the judge, I described the Kate I knew, in similar terms to those I have used above in trying to explain to you how loving she is, what a big heart she has, and how she travels through life as a creative spirit spreading positive energy to others. I wrote in my letter that I could not imagine her purposely intending to harm her child. She is simply not that person. I urged the judge to seek the truth in the situation and to question the validity of the perspectives of Kate’s family members since I knew a little about the family’s dysfunction and how much damage had already been done to Kate by it. I worried that it would be all too easy for Kate’s family to paint a picture of her that was false and that would damage her case. I labored over that letter, took my time writing it, revised and reworked. I knew that a woman’s life was hanging in the balance and I could not shake the hope that my letter could make a difference.

All of this happened a long time ago. I don’t have a copy of that letter. Kate doesn’t either, although she has tried to track it down in the court records of her case. The letter has evaporated in the mists of time. According to Kate’s attorney, my letter was the deciding factor that turned the judge to rule in Kate’s favor. Rather than sending her to prison, he sent her to a psychiatric facility to undergo treatment. From there, she would be released at the discretion of the psychiatrist overseeing her case when she was deemed to be stabilized. Kate spent many months at this facility. It was probably a good place for her to be at that time since she was so grief-stricken over the loss of her child. When she was released, she found a place to live, found work, and started her life over. If she had gone to prison, she would still be there, serving a minimum of 25 years, or else (more likely) she would be dead.

As it happened, after a long, forced-separation of mother and child by the child’s foster family for reasons too complicated and private to explain in this context, Kate’s child grew up and left the foster family to travel clear across the country to find Kate for a mother-and-child-reunion. They again became a part of one another’s lives. (They had brunch together on Mother’s Day last week.) Kate works as a medical translator, using her linguistic skills (she speaks four languages) to help people who don’t speak English communicate in hospital settings, often in the emergency room in crisis situations. She also continues to pursue her many creative projects, making beauty and facilitating connections between creative souls she meets in her life’s journey. It is impossible to sum up a person’s life in a few short paragraphs, and unfair to try to do so. Suffice it to say that Kate has lived and continues to live a productive life, contributing to the communities and lives of people around her in ways that would never have been possible if she had been locked away. She has, over time, taken control of her mental health, which she now maintains without medication or the interference of traditional medical professionals. It has been a long journey, but Kate has recovered from the trauma she suffered and she is doing well.

Today, as I recall that letter I wrote, I am awed by the awareness that my words saved a woman’s life. I am grateful for this gift I have received, this talent I cherish, this passion that possesses me. I am reminded of why I have dedicated my life to being a writer and I renew my faith in the ever-astonishing power of narrative. 

This sculpture, made in Shona stone in Zimbabwe, is called Mother and Child Reunion. 
I have not been able to ascertain the artist. Perhaps it is a standard motif done by many.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Big History at the Old Folks Home

Anne leaned close and said confidentially, “I don’t know how you feel about nonviolent civil disobedience, but I have done it a few times, and some of the people around here don’t approve because I broke the law.” I had just asked her if she felt comfortable in the “Old Folks Home” with her radical politics, and this was how she prefaced her answer. I shared that I, too, had performed nonviolent civil disobedience. We compared notes. Both of us had participated in nonviolent protests against nuclear weapons in the 1980s. Anne said she never actually went to jail for her actions. I did. This conversation took place at a residential senior community that I had the pleasure to visit for a couple of days last week. Anne has dedicated her life to political activism to promote peace and justice. I agree with her belief that the only way to make lasting positive change is through nonviolent action. It’s obvious to both of us that violence only breeds more violence. Violence is therefore not a viable method for transformation; it’s a dead end.

The rest of her answer to my question was interesting. She said that most of the people at the Old Folks Home don’t talk about politics and this helps them all get along with each other nicely. She understands that avoiding politics keeps the peace and makes for more pleasant interactions. But she explained that she lived her whole life in NYC in the embrace of a politicized activist community, where she talked politics all the time with her friends. Missing these conversations, she relished talking to me, a kindred progressive spirit. Anne has put her safety on the line to stand up and speak out many times in her life. She has stood witness to protect indigenous people in Columbia. Miraculously, since they are about as old as snow, her husband Tom is also still living. He is a Quaker minister with an impressive list of accomplishments as well.

Anne and I paused in our conversation to listen in on Tom’s conversation with a friend also seated at our dinner table. They were discussing the consequences of climate change, and they wound up speculating about what will happen after climate change has killed off all the human beings on the planet. Calculating how many billions of years more life our sun has in it, they reckoned that there will be enough time for some kind of human organisms to evolve from the slime once again before the sun dies and Earth goes dark forever. Tom’s friend says he finds comfort in this thought. Tom and his friend are both men who have led productive lives and have a healthy acceptance of the proximity of death that accompanies their advanced age. Of course they would prefer for their life’s work to live after them, but if their work will disappear with the entire human race in the wake of environmental collapse then the second-best scenario to wish for might indeed be that the human race will re-evolve into existence (if it’s possible for such a miracle to happen again). There is much to love about humanity, despite all its failings. Perhaps humans will have a second go at it.

We were so caught up in the conversation at our table that we lost track of the time. Almost everyone else had left the dining hall before us. A number of them had adjourned to a lecture offered that evening. We hurried to the lecture straight from the dining room. It happened to be the second-to-last lecture in a series of 50 lectures called Big History that had been going for over a year. From what I gathered, the first Big History lecture had been about the creation of the universe. The lectures had moved forward from there, looking at the gradual development of the solar system, our planet and the life on it that had evolved over billions of years. The lecture felt like an extension of the dinner conversation about the consequences of climate change and possible future scenarios.

The lecturer devoted some time to imagining the colonization and terraforming of another planet as an exit strategy for a people unable to survive on a destroyed Earth. I read a sci-fi not long ago called Red Mars about a team of scientists who go to Mars and change the environment on the planet so that it will be habitable for humans. The lecturer’s speculations reminded me of this book. Although I must say that this discussion makes me wonder why we would go to all the trouble of sending people to Mars and making it habitable when we already have a perfectly good planet that could be fixed with the same not-so-sci-fi-as-all-that terraforming activities. With some organization, commitment, relinquishment of what is easy, and willingness to abandon profit motives, we humans could change the climate of Earth back to something more conducive to sustaining human life deeper into the future. Why not seed rain clouds, restore the habitat in the oceans needed to bring back disappearing essential marine life, and stop pouring toxins into our soil? Just saying.

There was something extraordinary for me about having these conversations and attending this lecture in the company of these old souls. At 60 years of age, I qualify as an elder myself, but not nearly as much as the people at the Old Folks Home, who are a generation or more older than I. The people with whom I ate dinner and those who attended the Big History lecture have spent many more years than I thinking deeply about the tough questions, the progress of the universe, the future, and what lies in store for humans as well as other life on the planet. Life felt somehow more authentic, more explicable, and more functional in their presence. It moved me to witness these elders strategizing and caring about the condition of the planet left for future generations. It reminded me that some of us have done our level best. Some of us try to think forward unto the seventh generation and to preserve what we have received. The odds are so much not in our favor, but I believe that trying counts for something in the context of Big History. Trying is evidence that we are not oblivious. Trying is evidence that we have loved this world.  

Here’s a picture of me delighting in a magnificent magnolia in full magenta bloom in NJ last week. Our compromised world is so beautiful. The ephemeral quality of worldly beauty is achingly poignant. This magnolia is a blip of vibrant pink too small for notice in the vast reach of Big History. I’m glad I’m insignificant enough to enjoy a springtime magnolia.

Photo by Ron Reed